An ex-soldier, not quite a veteran Retired reserve officer feels uneasy among those who saw battle

November 15, 1998|By Laird B. Anderson

LAST WEDNESDAY was Veterans Day, a proud and solemn day of remembrance but one that leaves me conflicted.

The date was called Armistice Day when World War I ended, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Now the occasion recognizes all who wore a uniform, in peace and war. But, even with 31 years of active and reserve service as an infantry officer, I feel incomplete when the date rolls around.

I keep telling myself it's silly to feel that way. The problem is that, while I was trained for combat and expected to be called for active service, I missed the battlefield of my generation - Vietnam. The handful of friends with whom I've shared my unease tend to brush it aside as incomprehensible and tell me to count my lucky stars that I didn't go.

But there is a great distinction in being a Vietnam-era veteran. The only rounds fired at me or that I fired at others were blanks during spirited training exercises. No one was killed or wounded, and you always had the chance to clean up your mistakes. Meanwhile, many of my compatriots faced the real thing. More than 58,000 fell in the line of duty, countless others were wounded, and many who came home faced hostile countrymen who demeaned their sacrifice.

Though I championed them as best I could, I was removed from the tight company that was forged in the grimy and deadly duty they faced. When I meet these men and women today, I often feel uncomfortable to be in their presence, because I hadn't been among them on the battlefield.

Don't get me wrong. At 62, I don't consider myself a romantic drawn to some idealistic clash of arms. I understand the horror of war.

I did have a chance to become part of the fighting. In the mid-1960s, just a few years off active duty, I received a letter from the Pentagon inviting me to consider a return to active service. The letter said I had just the right attributes: I was a first lieutenant of infantry, had completed parachute training, and had served as a rifle platoon leader and company commander. Fill out the forms, take a physical, and welcome back. Vietnam was heating up, and this bugle call was clear.

I gave the letter serious consideration. I truly respected my Army life and had considered making the military a full-time career. I decided instead to become a "citizen soldier," half civilian and half military.

While the Pentagon's letter stirred my feelings, I was developing my civilian career as a newspaper reporter. But I continued my attachment to the Army and joined a Special Forces reserve unit that was considered a possible path back to active duty.

During the years that followed and as our involvement in Vietnam intensified, I would pull out the letter but always put it aside. I preferred to wait for recall with my unit. What I didn't realize was that President Lyndon Johnson had made a political decision to largely ignore the pool of reservists and amass fresh troops through the draft.

I continued my civilian career and viewed the distant, increasingly unpopular war through newspapers and television. I also continued my military career by parachuting from military airplanes and running infantry training exercises on weekends.

And then it was over. Too late to volunteer. Too late for the president to activate his large pool of reservists, many of whom were waiting for his call and most of whom could have served well in that dreadful conflict.

To be sure, many young men escaped to the reserve and fTC National Guard as a way to avoid the draft and service in Vietnam. It took the Persian Gulf war to remove that tarnish, when thousands of reservists were marshaled and served with distinction.

My civilian-military career developed nicely. I was, I hope, a good reporter-turned-journalism-professor, who stayed in the reserve and retired as a colonel in 1989. I retired from American University in 1996 after 23 years in the classroom.

I enjoy the benefits of my part-time military service. I receive a government paycheck each month. I drive from my home in Rockville and stop at Fort Myer, Va., where I flash my ID card as "U.S. Army Retired," receive a smart salute at the entry gate and proceed to the commissary. After packaging my less expensive, groceries, I'm on my way to the Pentagon athletic center a few miles away, where I work out several days a week.

My drive skirts Arlington National Cemetery, and I view the tombstones of thousands of men and women enshrined there. I am eligible to be buried at Arlington, and that's where I wish to rest with other veterans, as my family understands.

When future Veterans Days are celebrated, I'll join the ceremonies - but quietly. Meanwhile, I'll let the passage of time take care of my discomfort, which decreases every year.

Laird B. Anderson is a retired United States Army Reserve officer and professor emeritus of communication at American University in Washington, D.C.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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